Career advice for 'rookie' reps

December 1, 1997

Pharmaceutical Representative

Field veterans' views on stress, attitude and professionalism.

With the unprecedented growth and expansion of many pharmaceutical companies' sales forces, the influx of "rookie" sales representative new to pharmaceutical sales or sales altogether has been phenomenal. New sales representatives account for roughly two-thirds of the expansion in the industry, according to at least two pharmaceutical companies' human resources departments.

Accordingly, seasoned reps have felt compelled to review some basic rules of etiquette and pass on a few words of wisdom. I asked 30 representatives with five to 25 years of pharmaceutical sales experience to share their advice. This article is a summary of their responses, which can be grouped into three categories: control, attitude and professionalism.

Control

Many new representatives comment that they feel their lives are out of control. They feel completely overwhelmed. Frankly, these feelings are justified.

Learning a new geographic territory, new terminology, new technology, as well as a new boss can sometimes feel like an impossible challenge. Fortunately, this crisis will pass shortly. It's actually one of the "rites of passage" in our trade and the learning curve is steep but short. Soon enough, the territory will become familiar, the technology and terminology will become understandable and - once you realize your supervisor really does have a vested interest in helping you succeed - the boss will become manageable.

Some stresses, however, will never go away. Changes in the industry due to mergers, acquisitions and closures have caused employees and customers to expect more. It is not uncommon to work 60 to 70 hours a week, including nights and weekends. Quotas, deadlines, campaigns and contests drive the sales end of the business, and at times even the most seasoned representative can feel overwhelmed.

So how do veteran reps cope? What's the key to both survival and success? Stress management. This may sound simple, but it isn't easy.

The general consensus about managing stress seems to be that there are two things you must identify: things you can't control and the things you can.

The things you can't control can become the focus of a great deal of frustration if you allow them to preoccupy you. Past sales figures, time a client will or won't give to see you and what the competition is doing are all things that are out of your control. Learn to accept them. You don't necessarily have to like them, but move on. Then you're free to focus your attention and efforts on managing things you can control.

Managing the things you can control requires skill. This skill can be learned and mastered with the appropriate amount of practice.

Veteran representatives agree that there are at least four fundamental steps reps must practice if they wish to become masters at managing what they can control.

Develop a plan. This is probably a familiar bit of advice, but a plan can all too easily be overlooked in an environment of ever-changing requirements. As one rep said, "Plan your work, then work your plan and stick with it."

Set goals. Set small attainable goals, then set slightly larger ones that relate to the big picture.

Become a problem-solver. There is no greater asset to an organization than an employee who can identify problems and coming up with viable solutions.

Get organized. It's not important what kind of system you develop, just develop one that will aid you in knowing where and when you're going and what and how you're doing. As one seasoned representative said to me, "Getting organized is a lot like eating an elephant. Not only must you decide to eat it one bite at a time, but it would be really helpful to know what end you're going to start with."

Attitude

It really is true that when you smile the whole world smiles with you, but when you frown, you frown alone. It can be hard to smile sometimes in this business and you can start to feel awfully lonely. Experienced representatives generally share some common thoughts on attitude: Be positive, be patient and laugh.

Being positive usually translates into productivity, either now or later. Being patient will help build relationships. We all know that Rome wasn't built in a day, but being consistent, persistent and patient will help build relationships. And finally, maintaining a sense of humor is probably the single most important piece of advice for coping - past, present and future. Laugh. Laugh at mistakes, laugh at slights, laugh at rejections. Not only is laughter good for the soul, but it will keep things in perspective.

Professionalism

Professionalism is probably the most difficult concept to impart. It can encompass everything from dress to conduct. Opinions varied widely on what it was or should be, but one thing was certain: Everyone knew what professionalism was not.

Here are few representatives' suggestions for behaving as a pharmaceutical professional. Stay motivated to learn. You need to learn not just your product line but everything you can about the health care industry. Be courteous to others. Competition is great and it can bring out the best in all of us. Make sure that's why you are behaving competitively. Discourteous behavior, such as "bad mouthing" a competitor, trashing a sample closet or not giving another representative the space and time to conduct business, reflects poorly on us all. PR

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